Discovering Off-Beach Tel Aviv

The Norman’s Library Bar. Photos courtesy of the Norman Hotel.

It has been a very busy couple of weeks here at Fig Tree & Vine, as I’ve been lining up a big trip to Israel next week. Not only will our Israel-based team be meeting with new artisans and producers of exportable products for the site, but I’ll be visiting a few of the country’s top chefs and restaurants — including Raffi Cohen’s Raphael — and sharing their signature recipes with our subscribers.

And not just top chefs — but the hottest new chefs. As in, the restaurants where other chefs go to eat. A big thank you to our photographer Eliran Dahan — former special forces in the IDF’s Golani brigade, who also happens to be a foodie to the core — for providing us with the intelligence and making the introductions.

In addition to great food, I’m keen to start adding bar/bat mitzvah and wedding gifts to the site — significant jewelry, heirloom Judaica, and other beautiful made-in-Israel goods that you won’t find elsewhere online. In Jerusalem I’ll be staying at the Mamilla hotel, my favorite hotel in the city, a more youthful and hipper cousin to the elegant but zaydie-ish King David. In Tel Aviv I’m excited to stay again at the new Norman Hotel, which is like stepping back into 1920s Tel Aviv and pretending it was as glamorous then as Istanbul or Marrakech. Already lavishly praised by Conde Nast, amongst other top traveling sites, The Norman is situated in the heart of Tel Aviv (as opposed to the familiar beach strip). Its palm-strewn lobby and bars are within close proximity to Shenkin Street, the historic neighborhoods of Neve Tzedek and the Bauhaus “White City,” and the coffee houses on Rothschild.

The similarly charming Hotel Montefiore is only a block away. It was the first to offer a combination of seriously good cuisine and throwback, pre-Independence decor. Its booths are rarely empty, filled with a rather glamorous-looking international crowd day or evening, choosing from a similarly international and ambitious menu — have some chicken tikka after your goose-liver ravioli. It’s usually my first stop for lunch, if I can get a seat.

Photo courtesy of the Hotel Montefiore.

The Norman’s main restaurant, meanwhile, serves French Mediterranean-style dishes; there is another restaurant in the hotel that offers Japanese tapas. (Seriously — do you think Israelis only want to eat Israeli food?). Indeed this whole thriving central district — with seemingly a new boutique hotel or restaurant popping up every month — reminds me of the start-up of South Beach in Miami back in the early 1990s. Young real estate visionaries realized what was then a dilapidated district of Art Deco architecture could, if restored, prove to be a more fashionably outre hotspot to the sadly aging North Beach monster hotels where one’s grandparents spent their Februaries drinking martinis and playing canasta. I remember, back in the late 80s, walking with my husband through the lobby of the old, un-renovated Fontainbleau — where the same tired central fountain remained in the lobby, gurgling wheezily as it had gurgled at arriving guests for decades. South Beach embraced Miami as a city and a culture — not just as a touristic destination where you stuck to the stand and overdid it on the first day. The Norman, Montefiore and others are doing the same for Tel Aviv.

Yes, there are new sleek hotels popping up along on Tel Aviv’s beach strip too, but to me that area still remains a strip, much as the now gussied up North Beach remains one as well. Too many wide streets and whizzing cars to deal with; too little neighborhood life surrounding it. The beach isn’t going away. You can roll up a towel and walk to it easily from these new central, urban hotels — but you may find yourself not wanting to, instead preferring to explore the culture and street life of the amazing city that is modern-day Tel Aviv — one which is embracing and preserving historic Tel Aviv. The best of the old and the new.

Another view of the Norman’s Lobby Bar. Photo courtesy of the Norman Hotel.

I’ll be Tweeting, FBing and Instagramming my adventures in Israel daily @figtreevine. Please share this journey with me!